Wine writing is a vocational calling for some and a business for others. Sometimes it begins as a vocation and ends up being a business. For others it is a business from the very outset. The digital age has enabled many voices to establish their currency and character within the world of wine. There are a zillion websites, blogs, vlogs and podcasts that aim to capture the mindset of the drinking generations. Yet complicated relationships and sponsorships with and from the wine industry, make it difficult to really know whether an opinion has some sort of underlying vested interest or whether
it’s paid for.
When I was a self-employed wine auctioneer, I took great interest in Penfolds because I saw it as one of the pillars of the secondary wine market. By understanding its DNA, history and vintages, I believed that it would help to develop the secondary wine market. In hindsight I think this ambition was quite accurate. I have written several editions of Penfolds Rewards of Patience, commissioned by Penfolds, and continue to review vintages for Dan Murphy’s and the public domain. In theory I have a conflict of interest, yet I don’t think I could ever promote or speculate in anything I didn’t believe in.
Recently I criticised a Coonawarra cabernet sauvignon being sold in the UK that depicted a bucolic picture of rolling hills rather than the region’s typical flat-as-a-billiard-board-table landscape. Some would say that I am living in a glass house because I am involved in new product development at Pinnacle, a scion of Woolworths. Yet through these experiences, I am relatively well informed of the factors that build quality into wine and the commercial realities of business. When these elements are balanced, it equates to integrity and a job well done. But imbalance leads to the extremes of ‘more or less’ which does not always favour the consumer. At the commercial wine level, where every cost counts, equilibrium is achieved through constant benchmarking, experimentation and negotiation between winemakers and business managers.
Unfortunately, the perfect result is not always in reach, because the average wine drinker does not exist. At a recent internal tasting review, I regularly hammered red wines with too much oak, yet these commercial brands are hugely successful in the market because many people from all walks of life love to chew on red wine. The extra oak flavouring and tannins give red wine more grunt. If that’s what the consumer likes, should my opinion count in this forum?
Recently I was reprimanded by a Bordeaux Classed Growth (Grand Cru Classé) for giving its 2018 vintage 94 points. This was interpreted as a “hard cold shower” because the score “would not excite customers” let alone encourage them to taste it. I was surprised to receive this email because James Suckling, Jancis Robinson or RobertParker.com I ain’t. And even so, 94 points is a highly respectable mark for a wine that isn’t totally representative of a great Médoc wine in this superb-but-difficult-for-some vintage.
But this dialogue may highlight an increasing challenge for those wine writers who rely on the support of wealthy wine producers for building their income, lifestyle or brand. The relationship between the media and the wine industry is cosy at the best of times.
When international critics released their 2018 Bordeaux scores in April this year there was a predictable outcome with a pecking order reflective of each Châteaux positioning in the perceived hierarchy of today (underpinned by the 1855 Classification and Saint-Émilion equivalent and slightly adjusted to include the best properties of Pomerol etc). Are these scores really reflective of quality and vintage or are they indexed or skewed to expectations of “friends” and historical precedence?
Unwittingly, I had crossed a boundary of expectations. Yet with so much at stake, wine scores have become political, reflecting quality, selling power and the influence of wealth, ambition and the human spirit. I don’t know a single wine writer who doesn’t have some sort of conflict of interest, nor a producer who is not desperate for accolades. In the end it’s how we manage our own personal conflicts.
Despite my piddling score of 94 points the entire allocation of that 2018 Bordeaux Château was sold out, which proves that the “hard cold shower” was well and truly offset by the predictable storm of hot air that has become a feature of the Bordeaux Primeurs and the general fine wine scene.